It seems not everyone can forget the "Friends" television show.   Angelina Jolie may have gotten Brad Pitt but Jennifer Aniston is the one with her own namesake neuron.

Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, neuroscientist and bio-engineer, whose research was recently cited among the top papers in the world, is to reveal details of his studies into what has been dubbed the ‘Jennifer Aniston neuron’ during a public presentation at the University of Leicester.

Quiroga discovered that a remarkable type of neuron in the brain fired in an ‘abstract’ manner to completely different pictures of familiar persons, for example Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry.   He further discovered that given the firing of these neurons, it was possible to actually tell what the subjects were seeing far above chance – they were literally reading the mind.

Professor Quian Quiroga said: “One of the major scientific challenges of our days is to understand how information is represented by neurons in the brain. Although there has been spectacular progress in the last few decades, we are still far from comprehending, for example, how visual inputs are processed to create a conscious perception. Our main research interest is to study these principles of Neural Coding. Moreover, since complex behaviour is encoded by the activity of large populations of neurons, we are working on the development of advanced methods to extract useful information from these data.”

Professor Quian Quiroga, of the Department of Engineering, will deliver his inaugural Professorial lecture on Tuesday 4 November. The lecture, The Jennifer Aniston neuron: How the brain perceives the world and forms new memories, is free and open to the public. It takes place in Lecture Theatre 1, Ken Edwards Building starting at 5.30pm.

Professor Quian Quiroga said: “I am examining how information about the external world (what we see, hear, touch) and our own internal representations (e.g. memories, emotions, etc.) is represented by neurons in the brain. 

“For example, we can easily recognize a person in a fraction of a second, even when seen from different angles, with different sizes, colours, contrasts and under strikingly different conditions. But how neurons in the brain are capable of creating such an ‘abstract’ representation, disregarding basic visual details, is only starting to be known.”

Quiroga will describe how his research has high clinical potential for the development of NeuroProsthetic devices, such as robotic arms driven by neural signals to be used by paralyzed patients. 

He says his discovery has far-reaching implications not only for the development of neuronal prostheses, but for treatment of patients with pathologies involving the hippocampal formation, such as epilepsy, Alzheimers and schizophrenia and for further understanding of how perceptions and memories are represented in the brain.

Quiroga graduated in Physics at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1993. After 2 years working at the Department of Physiology in the Institute for Neurological Investigations – FLENI, Argentina, and one further year at the Department of Epilepsy of the same institute, he moved to Germany and obtained his PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Luebeck in 1998. He was a post-doctoral fellow at the Research Center Juelich, Germany, from 1998 to 2001 and from 2001 to 2004 he was a Sloan fellow at the California Institute of Technology, USA. He was appointed as a Lecturer in Bioengineering at the Department of Engineering of the University of Leicester in 2004, was promoted to Reader in 2006 and to a personal chair in 2008. 

Quiroga's main research focus is on Neuroscience and the analysis of electrophysiological data. This research involves the use and development of advanced methods of signal processing. In particular, he developed an automatic method for processing the neural data that is currently used by several neurophysiology laboratories. The use of this method allowed the finding of a new type of ‘abstract’ (e.g. Jennifer Aniston) neurons in the human brain that was published in Nature, obtained the first prize at an international meeting in 2005 in Madrid and received world-wide media attention, including articles in the New York Times, Scientific American, Daily Mail, New Scientist, The Independent, etc. It has also been selected as one of the top 100 scientific stories of 2005 by Discover Magazine. In 2008, his follow-up work in this line of research was selected as one of the “Breaking news in Neuroscience” by the european Federation of Neuroscience Societies (fENS).

Quiroga is a member of the editorial board of 3 international journals. He acts as reviewer for several international journals in the fields of Applied Mathematics, Physics, Signal Analysis, Clinical Neurophysiology and Neuroscience. He has given more than 30 invited lectures in the last 3 years, had published more than 50 refereed journal papers and currently holds 2 EPSRC grants, 1 MRC grant and 1 grant from the Royal Society. He is the head of the Bioengineering Research Group, at the Department of Engineering of the University of Leicester.